What makes art valuable?

In photo: The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David.

THOSE who jump to conclusions often land in ignorance. And for every complex problem, there is an easy answer—and most of the time, it’s wrong. In the art world, these adages can crystallize to absolute brilliance. Many artists who “think” they are producing art on the edge of the avant garde will often delude themselves that they are producing art on the avant-garde edge. But, most of the time, a simple check with a set of parameters will reveal that they are wrong. What then makes art valuable?

An easy answer is: “It depends on the buyers.” If they have the disposable income, let it be. Show us the money. Let them buy all manner of artwork and drive the prices up for works of a subjectively “valuable” or not-so-valuable nature. But is the valuation of art all that arbitrary and based on the rule of oligarchy with access to unlimited shopping sprees? In other words, is art of high value the demesne of the rich and the liquid?

Beware a wrong answer. A few will say yes. For them, art consumption is about the “nurture of culture,” no matter to what errors this road may lead.


This argument takes on a “socially relevant” subplot when they reveal that art buying is the means where they “give back to society.”

Giving back to society is good, but the act often has nothing to do with giving due value to art. This is where the error may lead. Let’s say that you are guilty of the misdemeanor: You have money to burn, but you aren’t very intelligent art-wise. What do you do? You buy art that either catches your uneducated fancy, your class aspirations or your core group’s validation.

Otherwise, you follow the bandwagon started or maintained by the powerful, by the media and by institutions in your locale and culture. The valuation of art can be reduced to a popularity game where trends are often misleading, but the quest lands buyers the “preferred” pictures hanging on their walls. “Oh, yes, you have this and that artwork by so and so artist/s? Awesome. How exciting!” But a popularity game often rewards the charisma of the artist and his marketing infrastructure, the quality of his public relations machine, and not the quality of his work.

This is a big error if we are to conclude that said artworks are of high value. An arbitrary change of variables can make obvious the fiasco. Let’s say, the trends change direction, as they often do. You, the unlearned art buyer, will then be left with a zoo of the “passé” and the “ugly”, populated with artworks by the unfashionable, the has-been. If neither money nor fashion can give value to art, then what gives?

The answer should lie in the work of art’s art-historical value, assuming there is some.

This is the pivot where valuations are ultimately destined to turn. This is the crux of the matter. What is art-historical value?

Art-historical value is different from mere aesthetic value and historical value. If you go to a history museum, you will discover objects that illustrate historical events, such as a painting celebrating a war victory or a royal coronation. If you go to an art museum, you will find that objects are selected along a hierarchy based on aesthetic interest or because of how such pieces have contributed to art history, perhaps including classical denotations of beauty and balance, and how these formalist definitions have “crumbled” since the onset of modernity and the 20th century, when newer or alternative ideas were introduced.

Where aesthetics are often the subjective study of what constitutes beauty or sublimation, these values are prone to change. But art history maintains a rigor. It is the discipline that specializes in teaching people how to evaluate and interpret works of art based on historical progress. This is different from mere historical value.

Artworks that only possess historical value are considered important due to their attachment to events of a nonartistic nature.

For example, the extremely large painting illustrating Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte of France in the act of crowning himself, completed in 1807 by Jacques-Louis David, the official court painter, is not artwork with tremendous art-historical significance. Instead, it is a painting with historical and political importance. Why? It creates a milestone in the career of Napoleon; it situates Napoleon above the stature of Pope Pius VII, as the former is seen in the act of self-coronation while the latter sits nearby and watches. Even Maria Letizia Ramolino, the mother of Napoleon, occupies a place more important than the pope, although in actuality she was absent to protest some sundry family friction. But does the painting add anything to art history? The answer is most assuredly no.

Meanwhile, if we turn the corridor of a museum or flip the pages of an art book, we may find that a picture of hazy, seemingly protocubistic apples by fellow Frenchman Paul Cézanne done a century later is considered more important in the art-historical tradition—no matter one’s protestations that the picture of apples is less grand, less formalistic, and the similar to the work of an untrained draftsman.

But the valuation of the Cézanne carries more art-historical weight than the David. The reason is that the history of art prefers flux rather than standardization. Artists throughout history have rebelled against conventions and, in general, people often outgrow older standards. Economically, this also focuses the art market to make finer distinctions. As of the present moment, there is agreement that art historical value achieves its preeminence.

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